To say that Stephen Andrews’ new paintings are a leap forward suggests that there was something about his practice that was in some way lagging or stagnating. So let’s just say that they’re a leap; not up or down, just a leap. A quantum leap, maybe?
Often when artists of Andrews’ stature and experience shift material gears, it’s accompanied by a burst of energy and the excitement of novelty and discovery. Of course his output was energetic beforehand and this is his first Toronto showing of these new paintings, so what kind of energy they’ll marshal and where it will take him is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that, touring around As Above, So Below on both floors of Paul Petro Contemporary Art, the paintings energized me plenty. There’s no two ways about it: These new paintings are staggering achievements, beautifully rich artworks that engage as much with the paint itself as with the content that it means to display.
While the shift into paint is new and unexpected for the life-long drawer, Andrews’ creative process remains the clear link to the rest of his work. The sensuous colours are applied in transparent layers, one thick glaze of oily pigment over another, each layer given its brilliance by the white of the canvas shining through.
For years now, throughout his extended series of Iraq War drawings, Andrews has manually mimicked the four-colour printing process of newspapers. Just as with those drawings, where he never directly drew with the crayons (opting instead to rub them through a screen), Andrews doesn’t use brushes in these new paintings. Instead he paints via a kind of stamping process: collecting the paint on a sheet of mylar and then rubbing it on the canvas. So there are no gestures visible on these paintings, no evidence of Andrews’ hand, which can be limiting for a painter — after all, a painter’s gesture is an intimate part of his seductive arsenal. But Andrews more than compensates for that lack through colour, through the sheer richness of his paintings’ surfaces. There is a glossy sheen to these paintings, as well as a profound depth.
For all this talk of process and material, what are the paintings about? Well, the short answer is the mysteries of the universe. Whether or not Andrews has altogether abandoned political content and narrative in his work remains to be seen (somehow, I highly doubt it), but these paintings are far more mysterious and contemplative than previous work. There are two very basic categories: people and star-scapes. Of course it’s not quite that simple. I just assume that the inky black paintings littered with tiny white dots are star-scapes; for all I know, they could easily be just pure abstraction. And to the right of the front door, a massive three-panel installation that covers two walls seems to depict a crowd: a top-to-bottom, edge-to-edge mass of people. Of course it’s really just a mass of smudges, and the way it veers back and forth between abstraction and representation, sometimes in the same square inch of canvas, is a testament to Andrews’ particular depictive powers.
Some of the paintings on the upper floor do away with even a hint of representation. Two of my favourites are simply fields of bright electric orange: pure, infinite light, captured in the confines of an easel-sized canvas.
The paintings lend themselves to a very mystical, even Zen-like reading. There’s very little that separates the dots representing people and the dots representing stars; we’re all a collection of atoms and chemical processes, electrons circling protons, a mass of physical reactions hurtling through the universe; as above, so below, to borrow the title, which borrows from Hellenistic philosophy. A lofty conclusion? Perhaps. But with this new work, Andrews is at the height of his alchemical powers. In the astonishing intensity of his colours and the sensuousness of his surfaces, his paintings achieve an intense spiritual depth; you can get lost in these paintings, the same way you get lost in a Rothko. Andrews is boldly going where few painters have gone before.
As Above, So Below continues at Paul Petro Contemporary Art (980 Queen St W) until Sat, Dec 19; call (416) 979-7874 or go to Paulpetro.com.